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“Would you like another glass of New Zealand Blanc?”
“Well… yes please,” I reply, after what I hope is a suitably polite hesitation but is more likely a nanosecond to the delightful Manru, my hostess on the Qatar Airways flight from Doha International Airport to London Heathrow.
Manru is from central China. She means ‘Sauvignon Blanc*’ of course but it matters not a jot. I know what she means, and anyway she’s graceful, intelligent, charming and attentive in equal measure, qualities endowed by a smile that could illuminate the entire Chinese nation.
Remember Keith, the wonderfully miserable American Airlines steward I encountered a few weeks back? Manru, I suspect, has had none of Keith’s advantages in life, possesses only a quarter of his command of English and yet beats him hands down in a more universal language, that of courtesy.
As I write, I’m somewhere over Beirut at around 35,000 feet, mulling as I tend to do at such times the experience I have just had, the brilliant people I have just encountered, the life I have led, the journey that lies ahead.
What is it about flying that makes one so reflective? Many people in this industry tell me about the disorientating effect of being alone above the clouds for hours on end, contemplating life, death and the whole damn thing. And I promise you, truly, it’s not just the Sauvignon Blanc.
I wonder what Manru’s life story is? But equally I wonder about the story of the Indian bus driver who drove me today from Qatar Airways’ impressively elegant Premium Terminal to my aircraft, a facility I doubt he has ever peeked inside. Where did he come from? Where is his family? How often does he see them? What decided his fortune to at least find a good and responsible employer when so many of his countrymen experience such desperate hardship working abroad?
It’s all comparative you see. Complain if you will (or perhaps to your shame) at the lax standard of your next five-star hotel, or the service onboard your next airline (sorry Keith, I’m now feeling guilty…) and then consider for a moment where you are, who you are and you might start to see that glass as not even half full (as opposed to half empty) but actually overflowing.
My own theory about why travel retail is so full of wonderful people and humanity is that the majority, humbled perhaps and taken out of their comfort zones by the innate internationalism of the industry, understand this fundamental truth.
*Postscript: The Sauvignon Blanc in question is from Hunter’s in Marlborough, a great winery with a poignant history.
It was founded 30 years ago by an Irish entrepreneur Ernie Hunter (above), who I knew well from the New Zealand hotel trade, and his wife Jane, an Australian viticulturalist. The first article I ever wrote was for a local magazine called ‘Wineglass’ and it was an interview with Ernie about the wine offer he was featuring at his inner-city hotel.
Tragically, five years after their first vintage, Ernie was killed in a car crash – just one year after Hunter’s surprised the wine world by winning The Sunday Times Vintage Festival in the UK with an oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc. That success was a seminal moment in the international acceptance of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, now one of the world’s most popular wine styles.
Ernie’s death happened just after I arrived in the UK where I was eeking out a living as a part-time wine writer. It was an appalling tragedy but not the end of the Hunter dream. Jane (pictured) took over the reins and has built the label into one of the truly great (and still independent) names in New Zealand wine. Her wines are freely available in travel retail and I seldom pass up the chance to buy some.
On Qatar Airways, a quarter of a century after Ernie’s death, I supped on the 2010 vintage with great pleasure and bid a silent toast to the departed.